I always find it intriguing when I happen across a new use of public domain literature in the course of my daily life. This time, I happened to notice that the current series of a Japanese TV show I’ve been watching has turned to public domain material for one of its gimmicks.
The show is the long-running Japanese tokusatsu (literally “special effects”) live-action series, Kamen Rider, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year. The series hasn’t been running constantly for all that time, but the current incarnation of the show has been going continuously since January of 2000. A number of fansubbers have been translating the show as it airs in Japan, and I’ve been eagerly watching it.
Japanese weekly series like Kamen Rider work a little differently than American shows. Rather than a fall season of 13 episodes, Kamen Rider airs on nearly every weekend through the entire year, for a grand total of around 50 half-hour episodes per season. Each new season is effectively a completely new show, with a different setting, characters, and powers, but what they have in common is that in each of these shows, an ordinary person comes into possession of a special belt that lets him transform into a powerful armor-suited warrior called a Kamen (or “Masked”) Rider. The belt comes with a variety of weapons and items that allow him to battle the forces of a mysterious shadowy organization bent on evil. (One of those items is usually a motorcycle of some kind, hence the “rider” part of the name.)
Aimed at tweens and teens, the main purpose of the show is to sell toys—lots and lots and lots of toys, usually incorporating microchip gimmicks for lights, music, sound effects, and digitized speech. Hence, the belt gadgets (and their toys) tend to have lots of different modules (sold as toys) that can be plugged into them to use different powers (and generate different light and sound effects).
Where the public domain comes into it is that in the current series, Kamen Rider Saber, those pluggable modules are books. (Well, plastic toys that look like books, but they call them books.) Characters have a specific book that they use to transform, but they can get additional books to grant them additional powers. The second episode of the series had two such books, both based on works in the public domain—the fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and the 1911 novel Peter Pan. The show did change the titles of the stories, presumably to make it easier to trademark the toys, but it’s clear what the actual sources are.
The episode’s plot also refers to another public domain story, the fable of the grasshopper and the ants, though there isn’t a book to go with that one. The books grant their users powers related to the stories they’re based on—and the protagonist, an aspiring novelist named Touma Kamiyama who also runs a bookstore and reads to children, is able to use his familiarity with those stories to understand intuitively how the powers work.
This isn’t the only way the show uses public domain works, either. In the first episode, Touma gives a child a Japanese translation of Nobody’s Boy, an 1878 French novel by Hector Malot. When the child is temporarily separated from his parents, Touma comforts him by saying the character in the book was separated from his family too.
And this is exactly how public domain stories should be used. As fundamental elements of our culture, they can serve as building blocks for creating new stories. It’s especially appropriate for this show. One of the premises of Kamen Rider Saber is that books have the power to change the world—and while that’s true literally in the world of the show, it’s just as true figuratively in our own. And by making a new use of these old public-domain stories, the show itself helps to prove that.
Since this is only the second episode, I imagine that there are plenty more of these books yet to come—and since there are untold thousands of public domain stories, fairy tales, folk tales, and fables to choose from, they certainly won’t run out of freely usable stories to adapt—or to feature in the story in other ways.
In a larger sense, I also like the way that the show is reminding people that even in this modern era, regular ink and paper books can still be powerful, magical experiences. It might not be what you’d ordinarily expect from a modern special-effects-driven television show designed to sell electronic toys, but it’s at least a more wholesome gimmick than shows like this usually manage.
It’s still too soon to tell yet just how good this particular iteration of the Kamen Rider franchise is going to be, on the whole. It has some remarkably good CGI (for the amount of budget they had to work with), but the writing seems a little iffy so far. That said, I’m a huge fan of all the recent iterations of the show I’ve had the chance to see so far.
If you have the chance, and the time to watch a fifty-episode series and associated movies, check out some of the past shows like Kamen Rider OOO, Kamen Rider Fourze, Kamen Rider Build, and Kamen Rider Zero-One. Given the questionably legal nature of fansubs, I’d probably best not link any sources here, but they’re easy to find for download if you look. There really aren’t any American shows quite like them. (Well, technically Power Rangers is sort of like them, since the American producers re-edited Kamen Rider‘s pre-teen-targeted Super Sentai sibling series to make it, but the writing isn’t in the same league.)
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